Good Fences: Myanmar’s Border with China

While North Korea rattles its sabre to China’s north-east, The Economist reports on another potential flashpoint to the south, where Myanmar’s government appears poised to resume hostilities against local ethnic militias:

In August last year Myanmar’s army mounted an offensive against an ethnic Chinese militia in the Kokang region, north of the UWSA’s territory; 37,000 of its residents sought refuge in China’s Yunnan province. The authorities gave them food and pitched tents for them. Most returned to Myanmar within a few days. But the UWSA could put up a far more protracted and bloody struggle. The junta demands that the militias join its own Border Guard Force, but few of them are interested in ceding the swathes of drug-trafficking territory they control along the Thai and Chinese borders.

Rumblings have begun. Last month Myanmar’s state media began referring to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) as “insurgents”, a designation that had not been used since the group agreed to stop fighting in 1994. Rattled by the push in Kokang, the KIA has started arming villagers in preparation for an onslaught. The National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), across the border from Xishuangbanna, a hotspot for Chinese tourism, is also bracing itself. Exiles from Myanmar report that the UWSA has boosted production of methamphetamine and heroin to buy weapons. At 20,000-strong, it is several times bigger than the KIA or NDAA ….

China faces a dilemma. It supports the junta and regards Myanmar as an important potential supply route for gas and oil, which could be piped from the Bay of Bengal (construction of the lines officially began in June). But it also has close ties with the militias. The UWSA and NDAA evolved from the Communist Party of Burma, which occupied the same border areas and once received arms from China. China does not like the militias’ drug business, but it views their territories as a useful buffer. Myanmar relishes China’s backing in the UN but it also courts China’s rival, India. China certainly does not want fighting. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, says it helped broker talks in February between the UWSA and the junta, but they were inconclusive.

See also: a Time feature on the UWSA.


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